• Print
Sunday August 3, 2009 4:37 AM

Expanding The Social Circle

How social networking impacts the business of being a GM

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Houston - I made a mistake and, quite frankly, I should have known better.

I approached this story not only with a preconceived angle in mind, but also a preconceived notion of how it would play out. It’s a fairly common trick for writers to use – just conjure an idea, ask questions provoking the sort of answers you want, then flesh out your story with quotes which serve to prop up your premise. That happens in this business. A lot. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave you vulnerable when you don’t get the quotes you want or – worse yet – when your premise is flawed.

Unfortunately, I fell victim to the latter. Perhaps I should explain.

Social networking is all the rage these days. It seems you can’t go a day without being bombarded by stories about, or at least referencing, websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Like everything else having to do with the internet, these sites have helped shrink the world while feeding our insatiable need for instant gratification. Lost touch with an old friend from high school? Look them up on Facebook. Interested in boosting the number of business contacts at your beck and call? Pay a visit to LinkedIn or Spoke. It’s just that easy.

But from a media standpoint, none of those has been quite as revolutionary as Twitter. In fact, it’s downright tempting to declare that Twitter, whether it was initially intended as such or not, has quickly become little more than a mass-media tool dressed in social networking clothing. Once reporters realized they could break stories instantaneously using the Twitter network, the race was on to sign up for an account and attract as many followers as possible. Now you can’t attend a press conference without spotting at least a half dozen scribes furiously typing away on their Blackberries and iPhones in order to relay quotes to fans eager to devour the latest news about their favorite sports teams. ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons hit the nail on the head when he said in a recent column: “Facebook is a social network. Twitter is a media/marketing vehicle disguised as a social network. Big difference. And if you don't think it's changing the way information is dispersed, for good and bad, you're insane.”

Given everything that’s already transpired in the Twitterverse, it’s difficult to argue with Simmons’ assertion. Reporters aren’t the only ones tweeting up a storm with the latest dish; the newsmakers themselves are now taking matters into their own hands and breaking big stories. When Minnesota Timberwolves’ forward Kevin Love inadvertently broke the story of Kevin McHale’s firing, it appeared to usher in a new era in which athletes, coaches, execs – heck, anyone – could cut out the middleman, circumvent the media and disseminate important information to the public. Suddenly, seemingly anyone with a cell phone could potentially put on a reporter hat and play the role of breaking news correspondent.

That thought was front and center in my mind last weekend when another online “event” took place on a popular Rockets’ message board. Someone started a thread claiming a friend had just informed him that the Memphis Grizzlies’ No.2 pick in the 2009 draft, Hasheem Thabeet, was at a restaurant in downtown Houston dining with, of all people, Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey. But wait, the story gets even better. Apparently, this “friend” also happened to overhear Morey telling Thabeet that the rookie center was going to be “a big part of the team,” insinuating that Houston was on the verge of acquiring Thabeet’s services. Not surprisingly, the board subsequently blew up with members weighing in on the validity of the thread and whether or not such an acquisition would be good for the team. And it wasn’t long before various media members began checking in with the club to see if there was any substance to this newfound rumor (obviously, there wasn’t).

Now brush aside for a moment the sheer ridiculousness of such a claim (Morey wasn’t even in Houston that weekend, though it should be noted that Thabeet was; he had announced as much via Twitter, of course) and the fact that Morey and the Rockets would have been subject to serious tampering charges if the rumor were in fact true. The real point here is that this cautionary tale provides an example – of which there are literally thousands – of how quickly the smallest spark can ignite an inferno. And with so many people "plugged-in" these days, potential sparks are practically everywhere.

Now take it one step further: Part of a GM’s job, by necessity, is to keep certain things under wraps. But how does one go about doing that when every restaurant, movie theater and street corner could conceivably be filled with amateur newshounds eager to tweet, post or otherwise pounce on anything they see or hear which may or may not be considered newsworthy? Have the rules of the game been altered in some irrevocable way?

That was the question I posed to Daryl Morey. That was my angle. I assumed his methods of conducting business were either currently changing in some profound way due to this paradigm shift or that they were, at the very least, on the verge of doing so; the secret-keeper now being forced to fight harder than ever to keep his valuables securely stashed away. I felt revolution in the air. But apparently some people (read: me) can’t tell the difference between revolution and rain. In Morey’s mind at least, the immediacy offered up by the social networking global community is much more about evolution than revolution – at least in terms of how it affects people in his position.

Is Everything Public?

I admit I had to call Daryl out a bit for his statement that “everything is public” since that’s obviously not completely true. Clearly, there are certain things pertaining to the team-building process he simply can’t disclose to the public.

“I’m pretty open about things we’re trying to do,” he countered. “But everything’s in degrees though, right? The best way to build a team is to have a rough direction of what you want to do while not being rigid and continuing to look for opportunities. That means that, as much as we have a general direction I’m usually comfortable sharing, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to go a different direction. If the price is right, we’ll do anything because the goal is to win, it’s not to stick to any sort of rigid plan.”

The notion of Morey being “pretty open” might come as a surprise given the public’s perception that he’s someone who plays things pretty close to the vest. Then again, it doesn’t exactly behoove a GM to spill the beans on trade talk or other potential moves which might lie on the horizon. Like it or not, part of a General Manager’s job is to master the politician’s art of speaking in a way which leaves the audience sated, while ensuring that the truly sensitive information remains securely stored away.

“I don’t go in with that intent, it just comes from a general principle of you simply can’t get too caught up in the particulars,” explains Morey. “I’ve got a general plan of direction and I know what makes sense for us trying to win a title, but the more you try to be rigid in the route, the more you’re going to close doors on ways to do it. That’s why I can be genuine and not reveal anything, because you really have to be very opportunistic.

“I just think the only way to ever get deals done is to have a lot of dialogue with other teams. If they feel like something they try is going to end up in the newspaper, then they’re going to stop calling. Personally, I never use the media in a deal-making way. I never leak deals. I just never do that. So that’s something I’ll always be careful about.”

“To me, it’s no different – it’s just easier and quicker, but the rules are still the same,” he said. “Everything is public (see sidebar) and people just have to get over the idea that anything is private anymore. I’m not sure that’s necessarily even a bad thing. Some people might call it Armageddon but I really don’t think it’s that bad.

“You either trust people or you don’t. If there’s something I think has to stay private while I’m sharing it with someone I’ll tell him that, and if they break that confidence by putting it on Twitter or telling a friend, then you stop telling them stuff. If you ask somebody not to say anything, then that includes Twitter. So I don’t understand why it’s that big of a deal.”

Well then. That effectively put a pretty sizable hole in my revolution balloon. Even when I brought up the recent Thabeet hullabaloo, Morey merely laughed it off, noting that the only thing that really rubs him the wrong way about ridiculous rumors is the fact he actually has to spend some of his valuable time refuting them.

“It’s just frustrating in terms of sometimes having to spend time on stuff that’s probably not very value-add,” he explains. “I try to avoid that by just ignoring most of the stuff but every once in awhile you get frustrated because you’ve got to spend some time with something not productive just to quelch a rumor. But I’ve always felt that this job is public and now the only thing that’s changed is that the number of ways you communicate with the public has expanded.”

It’s that last point which has Morey and the Rockets actively exploring everything social networking has to offer. The team has been particularly aggressive, using its official Twitter feed to regularly break Rockets news and provide insider access, while utilizing Facebook as a vehicle to draw attention to special promotions and offers. But perhaps the biggest benefit has been seen in the way these tools have served to usher in a new era of interaction between fans and the team. The people who drive the Rockets franchise are now more accessible than ever, enabling anyone interested to ask questions, offer suggestions or simply take an occasional glimpse into the lives of their favorite players and personalities.

Morey, meanwhile, maintains an active presence on Twitter and Facebook as well, and though he self-deprecatingly refers to his accounts as “the most boring feeds in the league,” he and his staff have devised their own creative ways of using those sites to their advantage.

One such example: Mere minutes before the free agent signing period began, Morey was waiting outside the house of unrestricted free agent Marcin Gortat, waiting to make his pitch. Knowing the Polish big man was certain to be one of the most sought-after players this summer, the Rockets’ braintrust knew it would have to go above and beyond in their efforts to gain his attention so, prior to Morey’s visit, the club created an email account solely for fans to express their desire to see Gortat in a Rockets’ uniform. Prior to entering Gortat’s abode, Morey tweeted the address and implored fans to make their pitch, and within minutes the Rockets GM was able to walk in the door and hand the free agent center a Blackberry already loaded with impassioned pleas from people anxious for Gortat to man the center position in Houston.

And while Orlando eventually ended up retaining Gortat’s services (after matching the offer sheet he had originally signed with Dallas), the Rockets’ unique approach perfectly illustrated the powerful potential offered by these websites, and the enthusiasm they can generate from fans only too eager to take part in the recruiting process.

“What we did with Gortat was sort of clever,” says Morey, “but I can’t take credit for that – that credit goes to our great staff. It ended up working really well. I think if the money had been closer to even – and if we were willing to go there obviously – those kinds of things made a very positive impact on him and would have mattered. So to all the people who think that stuff is a waste of time, I think it can matter when all else is nearly equal.

“So from that standpoint, I like all the new methods because it gives me more tools to get a positive message out there about the Rockets. If, for example, you aren’t getting the coverage you want on a particular issue, there are a lot more ways for the Rockets to get their own message out, whether it be through our website, or through Twitter or Facebook. It’s very advantageous because now you know you can hopefully get a fair shake. People might not agree with your perspective on an issue, but they’ll at least hear it and, in the past, you weren’t even sure your perspective was going to be heard because a reporter might not want to write about it.”

Admittedly, that’s not quite the way I envisioned Morey’s life being impacted by the social networking revolution. Whereas I foresaw his future featuring C.I.A. level secrecy and security measures, he and his staff simply shrugged those fears aside and focused on the new opportunities which now lie, literally, at their fingertips. I worried the gap between fans and the team might widen due to management's effort to keep certain secrets safe. Instead the Rockets' brain trust figured out a way to bring the public even closer to the action by engaging and incorporating fans in ways never before seen.

So, yeah, like Lloyd Christmas, I was way off. And, yes, I should have known better. I suppose there’s a lesson to be learned here - something along the lines of the tried and true maxim which warns about what happens when you assume. If only someone had tweeted those words of wisdom before I began...

Got a question for Rockets.com? Send it to Jason Friedman. And for up to the second news and injury updates follow the Rockets and Jason on Twitter.